There is not much that we can be certain about in this world, but one of them does seem to be that wars happen. As you are probably all aware another war or conflict has started between the nations of the Middle East, with thousands of people killed in just a few short weeks.
It seems to be endemic to our species that violent conflict is inevitable.
I remember my history lessons at school were mostly filled with lists of battles and wars where nation states fought over resources, land, wealth and religion.
In the Buddha’s day, it was no different. Kapilavastu, the town where the Buddha spent his early years, was completely destroyed by a neighbouring nation. The Buddha stopped one potential war over water rights, but sadly the two nations eventually fought and one was destroyed.
Buddhists through history have tried to stop wars and conflicts. At times successful and at others not. An Order Member friend has been working in Lebanon for some years. Teaching Lebanese leaders the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) methods to help bring a lasting peaceful settlement between nations in the Middle East.
Recently, at the Ipswich Buddhist Centre (IBC) we have been running a series on Buddhist ethical precepts. As you may know, the first is to not cause harm to living beings, and in the positive to offer only actions of Loving Kindness to all beings. At the end of October we held an Urban Retreat at the IBC, where we spent our days together on retreat but returned home to sleep. The theme of that retreat was ‘The Mystery of Mettā’. Looking at how Mettā (loving-kindness) can be taken deeper and deeper becoming a living reality for us. Revealing how Mettā and Insight are inextricably linked and intertwined as we work on the Dharmic or spiritual quest towards Enlightenment.
The conflicts that we see around us stem from a sense of separation. From the moment we are born, and through our lives we form a separate identity from those around us. We view others as separate and different from us, so they have the potential to become a threat, but if we remove the distinction between us then any sense of being threatened is gone.
In our practice we can usefully see Mettā as an outward movement of the ‘self’ rather than an emittance from ourself. This outward flow of Mettā has no limits and can be expanded indefinitely without loss of energy. In fact our energies are increased by this selfless giving out of ‘our’ Mettā. By getting out of our own way we become a conduit for universal Loving Kindness. In this way we align our emotions with Enlightenment. When we see Enlightenment as a deep and full understanding of the world or a vision of things as the really are, then the notion of an individual, unchanging ‘self’ is a wrong and corrupt view. If we can hold on to this concept, through our dharma study, our reflections and observations then we are starting to get closer to Enlightenment.
However, full Enlightenment is not possible until we also align our emotions and the subconscious actions driven by them. The emotion of Mettā, as a truly universal Loving-Kindness, then becomes the emotion of a Bodhisattva and fuels their compassionate action of trying to alleviate all Dukkha to assist every being to progress towards Enlightenment. That’s all well and good for a Bodhisattva, but what about us, who are not quite at that stage yet? Turning away from the stirrings of Mettā, we allow negative emotions to arise, for whatever reason. It is important for us to recognise the state of positive emotions, which can happen when we practice the Mettā Bhāvanā meditation, learning to directly come into contact with that positive state we call Mettā.
Sangharakshita, the founder of our Buddhist movement, used the analogy of gravity to help make sense of this process. When we are in a positive emotional state, it feels like we’re launching a small satellite into space. The satellite travels far but is eventually stopped by the force of gravity, in this analogy gravity represents negative emotions. Instead of disappearing into the vast expanse of space the satellite settles, temporarily, into orbiting the Earth. Eventually with gravity ceaselessly pulling on the satellite it heads back down to earth with a crash. Then depending on the conditions around us, we maybe launch another satellite, driven by the strength of perhaps, a peace and reconciliation process or maybe a retreat focused on Mettā practice. This time the satellite travels further, and we have high hopes of it crossing the vastness of space and achieving something beautiful, but alas, the satellite settles in orbit once again. It may be a higher orbit but it’s still not achieving that complete break from gravity, from negative emotions, breaking free of selfishness and entitlement.
In much the same way, the idea of ‘me’ as separate, is just an analogy, just a concept. It is just short-hand for how we view the collected sense impressions and experiences that are part of our lives. So why do we cling to one analogy and not the other? Why do we accept the sense of ‘I’ and what I want, as a reality and not the sense of universal Mettā? That’s a question you can maybe answer in your meditations, and specifically in your Mettā practice.
In the fifth stage of the Mettā Bhāvanā, we expand Mettā out from ourselves to all beings. Here are a couple of quotes from Sangharakshita that help us towards an understanding of this state of living with Mettā.
“You succeed in the practice of the Mettā Bhāvanā when in the fifth stage you can genuinely feel equal love towards all. If your care for others is made genuinely equal to your care for yourself, your whole attitude is ego-less.” Sangharakshita from: Living with Kindness.
“It is more useful to regard Mettā as an outward movement of the self rather than from the self. As we continually expand the scope of our care and concern, the self is universalized, one might say of expanded indefinitely.” Sangharakshita from: Living with Kindness.
Mettā then can take us way beyond our own self-interest and moves us to directly experiencing insight into the truth of the anatta or no fixed-self, therefore, breaking the fetter of self-view. This is a deep emotional understanding about the nature of self called ‘Stream Entry’. This is a place were we enter the stream that will carries us relentlessly on towards Enlightenment. In this state our minds become suffused with Mettā, and our consciousness is one of continual positive emotion. This is where we escape permanently the gravitational pull of the Earth, escaping negative mental states, and we begin to journey further and further into limitless space.
Bringing us back down to Earth, we probably realise that we are not in that state yet, but with continual practice of the Mettā Bhāvanā, kindness and friendliness to all we meet can get us some way towards our goal. The deeper we practice our Mettā meditation the longer the over-spill of Mettā stays with us. And when we are tested by difficult situations in which negative emotions of anger, pride, hypocrisy and negligence arise we can stay with a more positive emotion and realise that person in front of you is not different from you. Who are as worthy of kindness and respect as you are, as all people are. We can then know that our efforts in meditation have been worth it, and it is time well spent. Maybe better spent than anything else that we might be doing in our lives, right now.
We may not be able to help much in international conflicts, or even in conflicts closer to home, but we are learning to, and are able to radiate Mettā to all beings. And in a mysterious way that radiated Mettā can have an affect far beyond the imagination and in ways we cannot yet even comprehend. We will have to wait until we are Enlightened for that level of understanding!
Come along to the Centre this month and join with the Sangha, to learn and practice the Mettā Bhāvanā. Do this for the benefit of all beings and let your radiated love help those who need it most.